Spotlight on Kulae Studio Owner Tommy Antoon with Guest Blogger – Samantha Eve Kennedy
“Lots of yoga studios have a foo foo mentality focusing on the “pretzel poses”…that’s not what my studio is all about. That’s not what I am about. Our classes are about giving access to yoga for everybody.”
I’m sitting in what will be the back garden area of Go2Yoga studio. Across from me is Tommy Antoon, owner of Pacifica Beach Yoga in San Francisco, and as of 2 days ago, this studio as well. With his heavy East Coast accent, bowler’s hat, and speech peppered with a few strategically placed f-bombs, Tommy is not what you might expect from a California yoga instructor or studio owner.
He is animated, so much so, that I expect him to jump up any second and start teaching a class right here and now. A part of me hopes he does simply because I would love to see him in action with his students. As a yoga instructor myself, it is such a pleasure to connect with someone so passionate and committed to his community and practice.
It’s a beautiful Bay area day. This spot is cool and comfortable despite the fact that it is August. Tommy and I are discussing his plans for this new studio. At his first location 15 minutes up the road, he has created an oasis for his students.
“I live on top of my studio (Pacifica Beach Yoga) and it is only three blocks from the beach…the back door to the studio leads to my backyard. I call it my zen garden. I put a fire pit out there, some bamboo around the fence…So when people come into my yoga studio, I am literally inviting people into my home. I cut up fresh fruit everyday and put it out. We have a cooler with fresh water in it.”
Tommy’s face lights up as he describes his plans for this second location (Go2Yoga) which includes new paint (in progress), new floors (already in place), and another backyard oasis.
“I’ve invited a landscaper to [redesign this patio with plants] growing up the walls and the fence. There will be a fire pit, cold water, organic juices, and sliced fruit. It is all free…and my students can come outside and cool off for a few minutes after taking a hot yoga class.”
According to the 2016 Yoga in America Study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, yoga is a fast growing industry here in the United States. In 2016 alone, practitioners spent over 16 billion dollars on yoga – up from 10 billion dollars in 2012. Over half of the practitioners surveyed are members of a gym, studio, community center, or other group venue. So studios are in tight competition to attract members. And with a 91% satisfaction rate for those who practice in a dedicated yoga studio, it can be difficult for businesses to gain new clientele.
However for studio owners like Tommy, the focus is really on creating space for a true yoga community, rather than about pocketing a piece of the billion dollar pie.
“I aspire to provide a safe place for [my students] to stay healthy and do their yoga. Like I am doing… I see so many people come in with physical issues and with diseases and things and they want to know if it is okay and I can tell them ‘Yes you are here and in the posture with us’ and even if they are modifying, they are here with us.”
Tommy himself came to yoga after being overweight, on multiple prescription medications, and suffering from diabetes. A heart attack in his 40s was the final wakeup call and so, at the urging of his best friend, Mike Gumucio, owner of Hot On Yoga in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Tommy enrolled for his first yoga class. He remembers walking into a Bikram studio, and just lying on the floor not being able to keep up with the class. But he felt so encouraged and supported, that he kept going back – eventually completing 377 classes in a row, losing over 100lbs, going off all of his medications, and finally achieving his yoga teacher certification.
As he talks about his personal journey, I feel a real sense of gratitude coming form Tommy for all the people in his life who have helped make his transformation a reality. “Many of the teachers I went through my experience with are still in contact with me, or now work with me at my studios. The whole reason I was able to buy this second studio so quickly when the opportunity came up is because of the team I have in place. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to be where I am today.”
(Note: I followed up with Tommy just before this article was posted. Not only did his team rally together to make the second studio a reality and keep it open and running during the transition, but his best friend and mentor, Mike Gumucio, flew out this past weekend and volunteered his time, physical labor, and energy to help get the studio in beautiful shape for Tommy’s new community. With a voice full of emotion Tommy commented, “I just don’t know how this would have been possible if I didn’t have such wonderful people working with me to make this all happen.”)
It’s this feeling of support and community that he strives to provide for his students. When asked about how he tries to convey this idea to his members, Tommy pauses for half a beat.
“I like the welcome. I want my teachers to pick their heads up as students walk in the door and say ‘Hey, how you doing?’”
(Despite him being serious, I smile because with his heavy accent, Tommy sounds a bit like Joey from the TV show Friends. And yet his sincerity is so palpable that I can’t help but want to tell him my entire life story from just those four words.)
“Our students are real. They are not fake. They are not pretentious. They are not afraid to drop an F-bomb. They are real. And when they practice with us they feel really free and good when they leave. They need this space; they are not going to get any stress or drama. They can do what they need to do even if it’s just child’s pose or grab water. That room and spot around them is their personal spot to feel safe and do what they need to do. There should be no fear when they walk into their yoga room.”
With the yoga industry growing so quickly, studio owners like Tommy are redefining what it means to be a successful business.
“I want the best for my students. I put the money back into my studios. The studio is my girlfriend. And now [with the purchase of this second studio] I have two girlfriends.”
Tommy laughs and then grows reflective for a moment.
“We tell people when they come in, lay down as much as you want to, lay down the whole class. But just stay in the room with us. You’ve made it. You’re good. And then you’ll come back tomorrow and do it again. And then maybe you’ll do two poses tomorrow.”
As I sit there listening I realize I’m nodding my head in agreement with everything this big, bold, larger-than-life, kindhearted person is saying. All too soon our time chatting is up, and Tommy goes off to the multitude of tasks which need his attention. And as I’m walking out the door, promising to return to take a class, Tommy looks over at a student coming into the studio.
“Hey, how you doing?” he asks with his heavy East Coast accent and trademark grin. And both I and the student smile back in return.
This is community. This is yoga.
Author Bio – Samantha Eve Kennedy
Samantha Eve Kennedy is a 200 hour Kripalu certified yoga teacher, lifestyle blogger, and freelance writer based in Southern California. Traveling the world inspiring people to a life of joy on and off the mat, this whole foods vegan also creates delicious plant-centric meals to fuel her body for yoga, dancing, running, hiking, and kayaking.The founder of SamanthaEveYoga.com, connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.